One of the questions that often arises when talking to some of my clients, is about sweeteners. As a result, the topic of sugar vs. honey comes up and then the question that ensues is which sugars are better, the white or the golden colored ones? The following is a dietitian’s take on these questions.
Sugar and honey are both what we call a simple carbohydrate, and both are a calorie dense sweetener. As far as composition, both sugar and honey are comprised of glucose and fructose. However, sugar also known as table sugar, has the glucose and fructose molecules bound together, thus making sucrose i.e., table sugar that we are all familiar with. On the other hand, with respect to honey, the glucose and fructose are independent of each other, as such, this makes honey taste sweeter. So, remember that both are typically broken down and digested and used as energy very easily and both can lead to a surge in blood glucose levels. Also keep in mind that the glucose or fructose your body does not use for energy is stored as fat.
One difference I sometimes hear people say is that honey has essential nutrients which sugar doesn’t. While sugar is lacking some of these essential nutrients that honey does have, we need to put this in perspective and bear in mind that such essential nutrients are found in honey only in minuscule amounts. So, the question that often follows is, “Doesn’t that make honey better?” The amount of honey one would have to consume to receive benefits from those nutrients would be enormous. A tablespoon of sugar has 46 calories, and a tablespoon of honey has 64 calories, per the Department of Agriculture. Thus, if you consumed enough honey to get your daily value (DV) of those minerals found in honey like potassium and zinc, you would need to eat 20 cups of honey in order to consume the DV of both of those. So, when analyzing this, we are led to conclude that this may not be sufficient motivation for consuming honey. The takeaway here is that sugar is sugar and honey is also sugar. Like all things, we need to consume them in moderation. For me, I use honey for the varied flavor it provides while baking but I always keep in mind that honey, just like sugar, will convert to energy and raise glucose levels in the body quickly. For my son, who has diabetes, this is an important fact.
Another question I often get regards the difference in granulated sugars. The question that is always asked is whether the slightly golden-brown type of sugar referred to as turbinado sugar is healthier for you or better for you. There are slight differences in these two sugars, turbinado sugar by some, is thought to be healthier as it does contain some minerals as a result of the molasses content still in it. However, much like honey this is only found in trace amounts. The difference in nutrition value is not big enough to provide huge health benefits. The granules of turbinado sugar are larger and although it can be substituted in most recipes, there are some recipes that it does not work well for. Like, for example, if you are wanting a lighter color such as with an angel food cake or a sugar cookie. These two foods would come out with a golden color to them. Another example is if you need a much creamier texture. Turbinado sugar with the larger granules does not work well for those recipes. As for calorie content and your body’s ability to utilize it for energy, they are virtually the same. The difference in dietary uptake and utilization between of turbinado sugar will not provide marked health benefits just as honey does not.
So just what is the bottom line when choosing a sweetener? Choose the one that is right for you and what you are trying to accomplish. Don’t think that one will not contribute less to your overall calorie consumption or that one is going to improve your health over the other. All sweeteners need to be consumed in moderation.
Carrie Gustafson RDN, LD